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Expanding Access to Opportunity

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Expanding Access to Opportunity

Photograph of Assistant Secretary for Policy Development and Research Katherine O’Regan and four panelists at a table on stage in front of banners displaying the HUD and PD&R logos.
As part of PD&R’s Quarterly Update, Assistant Secretary for Policy Development and Research Katherine O’Regan and panelists Jens Ludwig, Robin Snyderman, Carol Naughton, and Mark Joseph discuss issues surrounding upward mobility.

New research on the impact of HUD’s Moving to Opportunity (MTO) program reveals increased college attendance rates and earnings in adulthood for children who moved to lower poverty neighborhoods at a young age. These findings validate the notion that place matters for promoting upward mobility and breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty among low-income Americans. On June 25, 2015, HUD’s Office of Policy Development and Research (PD&R) convened a panel of experts as part of its Quarterly Update, including Jens Ludwig, McCormick Foundation Professor of Social Service Administration, Law and Public Policy at the University of Chicago; Robin Snyderman, founder and principal of BRicK Partners, LLC; Carol Naughton, president of Purpose Built Communities; and Mark Joseph, associate professor at Case Western Reserve University, for an in-depth conversation on the issues surrounding upward mobility.

Providing context for the discussion, Katherine O’Regan, assistant secretary for PD&R, noted that intergenerational mobility in the United States has remained fairly constant over the past 50 years, and this stagnation in the face of income inequality — which has been steadily rising and is at its highest level in nearly a century — and persistent racial segregation underscores the need for both people and place-based strategies to increase access to opportunity. HUD is invested in such a multifaceted approach, with programs such as Choice Neighborhoods and Rental Assistance Demonstration to improve the places where people live and housing choice vouchers (HCV) to improve their mobility.

Improving Mobility

The HCV program is HUD’s largest housing assistance program and its primary mechanism for promoting mobility. Within the HCV program, HUD is proposing changes to fair market rent (FMR) regulations, which are used to establish rent payment amounts for voucher households and are currently calculated for entire metropolitan areas. The changes call for replacing metropolitan area-wide FMRs with small area FMRs, set at the ZIP Code level, in regions where voucher holders are concentrated in low-opportunity neighborhoods. As O’Regan notes in this EDGE message, small area FMRs, which more accurately reflect local market conditions and subsidies needed, have been shown to promote deconcentration of voucher holders and increase their access to high-opportunity neighborhoods. HUD has also been a key partner in promoting efforts at the regional and local levels, such as the Chicago area’s Regional Housing Initiative (RHI) described by Snyderman. Since 2002, the Chicago region’s participating public housing agencies (PHAs) have been pooling their project-based rental assistance vouchers to create affordable housing options for low-income families in neighborhoods with good schools, employment centers, and transit facilities. RHI members use a common set of metrics based on a regional fair housing equity assessment to identify and target resources to opportunity areas. The pooling and sharing of vouchers has made more than 400 apartments available to low-income families in 19 communities around the region. The PHAs also use a single regional waitlist and referral system for families interested in moving to RHI developments, which was implemented as part of the Chicago Regional Housing Choice Initiative, a HUD funded demonstration program to test regional mobility strategies.

Place-Based Interventions

Although efforts to promote mobility are important for removing opportunity barriers, place-oriented strategies to improve neighborhoods are also needed. “Not all families want to move or can move, and it should not be that the only choice for families to achieve improved outcomes for kids is to leave the networks they are embedded in,” says O’Regan. One model that is producing results in communities across the nation with a holistic approach to revitalizing places is Purpose Built Communities. Pioneered in Atlanta’s East Lake neighborhood, the Purpose Built model uses a three-pronged approach with high-quality, mixed-income housing; a cradle-to-college education pipeline; and community wellness programs, all sustained by a “community quarterback” — a single-purpose, local nonprofit organization committed to the revitalization process. In East Lake, which was once plagued by high rates of crime and unemployment, poor-quality housing, and low-performing schools, investments in education, housing, and human services under the leadership of the East Lake Foundation transformed the neighborhood into a sought-after community with one of the best performing schools in the state of Georgia. The neighborhood school, says Naughton, who served as the executive director of East Lake Foundation, played a critical role in attracting new residents to market-rate units, promoting social and racial diversity, and building a sense of community. She observes that the right scale for place-based interventions is at the neighborhood level and that having a dedicated community quarterback and building in the flexibility to make “midcourse corrections” are crucial to achieving successful outcomes.

Intentional Integration

The revitalization of East Lake shows that high-quality, mixed-income housing and good schools can serve as a springboard for other changes that result in the creation of opportunity-rich areas. Mixed-income housing, in particular, holds unique promise for promoting upward mobility by providing affordable housing and safer neighborhoods as a stable platform and offering opportunities for integration. However, more intentionality and strategic use of resources are needed, says Joseph, who leads the National Initiative on Mixed-Income Communities at Case Western. Simply moving people into better housing and better neighborhoods is not enough, notes Joseph. Intentionality is needed in terms of strategically delivered supports and services that help low-income families get and stay connected to the local marketplace. Joseph echoes Naughton’s idea of a community quarterback or “backbone organization” to coordinate service delivery to residents and maintain accountability among the different service providers. Although mixed-income housing has the potential for bridging social capital, spatial proximity alone may not foster the relationship building that would benefit low-income residents; therefore, says Joseph, it is important to “activate the mix.” He advocates for programs that connect residents from different economic backgrounds and break social barriers in mixed-income developments.

Implications for Research and Policy

Chetty et al.’s recent findings of positive earnings and education outcomes from the MTO program, where there were none previously, highlight the long-term nature of mobility policies and programs, says Ludwig. He points out that upward mobility is about life outcomes for low-income children as adults, and researchers and policymakers need to consider this when evaluating whether mobility programs are actually working and achieving intended benefits. Short-term markers and metrics should be designed to better predict long-term outcomes and enable midcourse corrections. Joseph points out that the groundwork for research to study extended outcomes for different people- and place-based upward mobility programs should be put in place early.

For a more complete discussion of investing in people and places for upward mobility, please view a webcast of the panel discussion, available here.


The contents of this article are the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or the U.S. Government.